The materials we use will impact the planet in different ways. And between all the caveats, buzzwords and big promises, decisions don’t come easy. There is no definition of ‘sustainability’ that captures it in full. There is no perfect solution to the planet’s problems. In every choice, there is compromise. But, while that might sound pessimistic… we think it offers great opportunity. To make progress. To hunt for solutions that offer the least amount of compromise. And celebrate the steps (or shuffles) we can take towards real global impact. It’s a work in progress, which just means that the best material for the jobs is getting better all of the time.
We recently hosted a roundtable with some industry leaders in the space to discuss the path to circularity. Here are some snippets of that conversation... You’ll find the full roundtable at the bottom of this page.
Thanks to Viviane Gut from On Running and Teslin Doud for joining us – and sustainability journalist Esha Chhabra for moderating.
Understanding the tradition of leather
We work hard to create products that will live a long life and we choose materials that can reliably serve their purpose. That means leather for something like a wallet, because it feels great in hand, and the way it moulds and patinas means it gets so much better with time (and use). But with leather, comes a few questions and hard truths.
“Leather can be a terrible material – it was one of the early forms of toxic waste when tanning wasn’t being done properly. There’s thousands of years of history in leather, and it’s a challenging material. At the end of the day, a tannery has to be run really well and really precisely, with a lot of discipline to create a material with fewer issues. When we come at it, we’re trying to understand the issues of a traditional and opaque industry and work with incredible organizations to bring transparency into this supply chain and contribute to better practices. If we can get better visibility of where the animals have come from, how they were raised, how they were transported, how it all happens... then we can make small movements as part of a massive picture – which hopefully has a net effect that is quite significant.” – Andy, Bellroy’s co-founder and CEO.
“The Leather Working Group started looking specifically at the tanneries – waste, chemicals, effluent and power – to create a standard for tanneries. Because that group included everyone from the cattle industry through to brands, they realised there was a real opportunity and set up an animal welfare group to look at sustainability, traceability, best practice, slaughter and transport. The economical value of the hide is so low compared to the economic value of the beef, that the ability of leather brands to influence that supply chain is small. But that doesn’t mean you don’t try! Understanding the economic and business realities of this space is significant. And we trust our customers enough to understand and engage, and come along for the journey.” – Sarah Nichols, Bellroy’s General Counsel and Chair of LWG’s Animal Welfare Group.
Making the move into recycled materials
We aim to make products that can be used and loved for as long as possible. And that means choosing fabrics that are hard-wearing, water-resistant, nice to hold and good to look at. But what does that mean for natural vs synthetic sources, virgin vs recycled streams?
“The definition of quality as ‘fitness for purpose’ has always rung true for us. We’ve always looked at materials that can do the jobs you require of them in a really nice way – not just on the first day you buy them, but 1000 days later or beyond. We began in slim wallets, so leather made the most sense. When we looked at all of the substitutes, there was nothing that had the longevity, maintained the same desire, gathered the same patina. But with our bags, leather is not the right material. So we moved into wovens – we began in the polymer space because we could get a lot of durability. Now, more than 90% of our woven range features recycled streams (recycled plastic bottles and nylon offcuts).” – Andy
“There is no 100% sustainable option, and what it comes down to is making intentional and informed decisions so you can use the best material that’s available for the situation you’re in. While recycled polyester is not the best solution for everything, it is a very different option for a bag that you won’t be putting through a washing machine, versus a t-shirt [where micro-plastics may enter your waste-water]. For durable products, you need more technical materials, so switching to a natural fiber-based system isn’t going to be the best option. So you ask yourself, what’s the use phase of this product, and what impact is that going to have?” – Teslin Doud, Circular design consultant.
The future of plant-based streams
“One of the issues the world has to solve is to find a second use for these single-use plastics and waste streams – but then we also believe in the new platform of regenerative agriculture where we could make things from plants that are grown in much more holistic ways. We can do things that not only make use of waste streams, but build new architectures where, under regenerative farming practices you can start to soak up carbon from the atmosphere, preserve water usage… so while we’re looking at our technical nutrients – plastics and nylons – to get them to come around again, we’re also working in plant-based fabrics to find better practices that can hopefully start having positive effects on the world, not just cleaning up the negative effects that are already there.” – Andy
“The circular economy is about perpetual cycling – so cleaning up the mess, isn’t going to stop the mess from being created in the first place. That’s where the circular economy comes in, to change the way we design products at the very beginning so they never actually become waste at the end. We need to look at the materials we use, and create new products in a way that can be perpetually recycled or fed back into the earth.” – Teslin
When the system is truly circular, we can all start to consume without any of the guilt that often comes with it. While there are currently very few systems in material goods that are circular and abundant, we’re trying to move towards that as quickly as we can. So, we have some goals: to eliminate virgin petroleum products; to deal with waste that’s in the world; to move towards abundant systems. We’re so early in the process. But we’re moving towards that end goal. And with every milestone along the shuffle, we’ll keep you posted. Because we couldn’t do it without you!